Secret Lip Services – The honor John le Carré doesn’t want you to know about

Rarely am I shocked while reading a book, but this was the exception. As I perused my latest purchase, a binded transcript of a speech John le Carré gave at John Hopkins University in 1986 titled The Clandestine Muse, I had a shocking revelation.

John le Carré had won Blistex lip balm’s 1985 “Most Beautiful Lips” award.

Close up of John le Carré’s lips

Lips & Spies

Lips and spying have a long history together. One of the most infamous moles of all time, Judas, betrayed Christ with a kiss. After World War I a mysterious woman named Baroness Carla Jenssen became a celebrity with a tell all book on her career in espionage for Britain titled I, Spy. In the book she describes putting drugs on her tongue, the roof of her mouth and lips in secret before kissing her would be suitors. Once dosed they would quickly fall asleep which gave her ample time to search their rooms for classified documents.

During World War II various smoking implements – cigarette cases, lighters, pipes – would all be used as cameras or weapons. The cold war led to even more innovation – an exploding cigar for Fidel Castro and, of course, the KGB lipstick gun.

Blistex, the company that handed le Carré his lip award, is based just up the road from me in Oak Brook, Illinois. They make various lip products but, at least when I was growing up, their green tubes of lip balm could be found in the pocket of every chapped lipped child’s winter coat on a Chicago playground. Throughout the 1980’s and into the 90’s they would release their annual Blistex “Most Beautiful Lips Award.”

Le Carré’s Intriguing Lips

Needless to say, learning this award was given to le Carré sent me reeling. What made his lips such a stand out? The most obvious answer was that these were not the pursed, frowning lips of later le Carré as he stewed over American interventionism. These were the young, supple lips of an 80’s le Carré basking in the successful glow of the Karla trilogy and A Perfect Spy.

But was there more to the story?

Taking to Google. I discovered a 1993 letter to the editor that le Carré had written to protest the assertion that he didn’t accept literary awards. For the curious, he will accept them but doesn’t enter his work into any literary contests and definitely is not interested in any cash prizes. In the letter he mentions an award he seemed dubiously proud of –

“the Blistex Beautiful Lips Award for 1983, given to me for possessing the world’s most intriguing lips. A more vigilant reporter than Ms. Heller might have noticed the certificate hanging in my lavatory.”

But wait, in The Clandestine Muse he states he won the award in 1985. In this letter he says it was 1983. Was this an honest mistake? Surely he could have walked to his bathroom and checked the date? Did he really win at all?

I’d become lost in a wilderness of mirrors and in every direction I looked all I could see were intriguing lips sneering back at me.

Clearly more research was required. Google was no more help. This called for serious library research. The Nexis newspaper database came to the rescue with a variety of hastily rewritten press releases printed as news stories. From the AP wire –

“”There have been ‘best dressed,’ ‘worst dressed’ and many other fashioned-related lists. But lips are up front in the way others perceive us,” says Blistex, Inc. executive vice president Richard K. Green.
Lips deserve more attention because “they play such a crucial role in communication in our modern world,” he adds.”

Among the luminaries honored for having the most notable lips of the year were Margaret Thatcher with “the most stiff upper lip”, the recent release of Risky Business led to Tom Cruise picking up the “riskiest” lips and “flashiest” lips went to, you guessed it, Jennifer “Flashdance” Beals. Who was 1983’s winner of “most intriguing lips”? Why none other than the bestselling author of the recently released novel The Little Drummer Girl – John le Carré.

This may also solve another short-standing mystery. For awhile now folks have wondered why Sting warranted a reference in le Carré’s last book, Agent Running in the Field? Even Sting himself wasn’t sure. Well, that same year le Carré won, Sting received the “hottest” lips award. Had they rubbed elbows at the star studded awards ceremony that presumably occurred for the honorees? We can only assume that the seed was planted then which eventually bloomed 36 years later.

The one thing I think we can all agree on is that if James Bond had kept his lip balm close at hand he might have avoided folks saying he has a “cruel mouth.”

For more I’ve written on John le Carré go here.

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